Ruled by Rules

Jonathan Clements

MOST OF US STRUGGLE with self-control. We eat too much, exercise too little and spend excessively. One solution: Adopt rigid rules of behavior.

For instance, I make it a rule to exercise every morning for at least 40 minutes, always buy whole wheat bread, avoid caffeine after 9 a.m. and eat fruit as a midmorning snack. I’ve followed these rules for so long that they’re no longer rules, but rather ingrained, unquestioned habits.

Not surprisingly, I’ve also used this approach with my finances. When I worked fulltime, I made it a point every year to max out my 401(k) and IRA. When I had a mortgage, I always added at least a little money to the monthly check as an extra-principal payment. When I bought cars, I made it a rule to pay cash.

Today, in my semi-retirement (which—go figure—means I’m working harder than ever), I follow fewer financial rules. I limit my spending to whatever I can earn from my writing and I always pay off my credit-card balance in full on the day I get the bill. There’s nothing particularly clever about these rules. But they keep me on the financial straight-and-narrow, and they do so without much thought or worry on my part.

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